Jewish Spiritual Crisis

In America around the turn of the 20th century, Jews had the freedom to not observe religion and rabbis were scarce.

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Reprinted with permission from American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press).

East European Jews had to contend with a  religious world radically different from the one they had known across the ocean. In Eastern Europe, Jews understood that for all of the difficulties that they faced, religion defined them; it was an inescapable ele­ment of their personhood. They were taxed as Jews and drafted as Jews. Religious affiliation was stamped into their passports and noted on their official documents. When they married or divorced it was done only acco­rding to Jewish law, by rabbis authorized by the state.

Indeed, the state recognized Judaism as a legitimate minority faith. Those who sought to ob­serve Jewish laws and customs faced almost no difficulty in doing so, while those who sought to cast off Jewish identity entirely could not do so unless they converted.

Separating State & Synagogue

The situation in the United States was entirely different. Indeed, what made immigration so dangerous, from the perspective of traditional Europea­n Judaism, was that religion in America was a purely private and voluntar­y affair, totally outside of the state's purview. Nobody forced Jews to specify their religion; they were taxed and drafted as human beings only. When a Jew married or divorced in America, it was state law, not Jewish law, that governed the procedure; rabbinic involvement was optional.

Indeed, rabbis enjoyed no official status whatsoever in the United States. As a result, Judaism proved easy enough to abandon, but in the absence of state support, difficult to observe scrupulously.

Partly because of this situation, rabbis could provide immigrants with very little guidance in making the transition from old world to new. In fact, very few East European rabbis even immigrated to America in the 1880s and 1890s. Rabbi Moses Weinberger, one of these few, claimed in 1887 that in all of New York City there were no more than "three of four" rabbis with the highest level of ordination, allowing them to issue rabbinic decisions based on Jewish law--this in what was already the largest Jewish community in the world. According to another source, there were but 200 rab­bis of any kind (including Reform rabbis) nationwide in 1890--fewer than one for every 2,000 Jews.

"Sheep Without a Shepherd."

From a rabbinic perspective, this was a disaster; one rabbi compared im­migrants to "sheep without a shepherd." From the perspective of the immi­grant "sheep," however, the absence of rabbinic "shepherds" seemed no more problematic than it was to rabbi-less American Jews of earlier eras. Indeed, the immigrants seem to have taken their newfound freedom in stride, which explains why they failed to pay or treat their all-too-scarce rabbis any better than they did.

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Jonathan Sarna

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.